A noiseless lesson – aka a lesson in less noise

Last week I had a bit of a beef about how the coaching of young pianists these days seems to pay scant attention to developing a sensitivity to context. I would hesitate to call it a ‘school of thumping’ – but then why do so many insist on playing a Schubert Impromptu in a modest room with the full gamut of tonal possibilities needed to compete with the Berlin Philharmonic in Rach 3?  Why, by the time students reach the higher grades, do so many feel there is a correlation between the passion they feel and the amount of noise they make?

What a pleasure it was to experience a supreme example of exactly the opposite last week. The occasion, a London concert, one of the South Bank International Piano Series, by young Russian Yulianna Avdeeva. As I am sure you all know, she was the outright winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition (generally considered to be the most prestigious competition anywhere) – the first woman to achieve that since Martha Argerich in 1965 and coincidentally, at 25, just a year older. Last week her programme comprised two Beethoven Sonatas (op 90 and 81a) and the C minor variations, followed by a thoughtful and carefully chosen Lisztian second half culminating in The Sonata.

These are all significant works, each played with a fine balance between assertive authority and subtle nuance and, it need hardly be said, with consummate technical skill. But surely it was Yulianna’s exquisite playing of a comparatively tiny encore (Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C# minor) that provided the emotional highlight of the evening.

Just as a slight person does not feel any less deeply than someone rather more heavily built, this deceptively simple nocturne expresses a depth of pathos the equal of anything written by Liszt – in the right hands. And Yulianna clearly has those. With almost painful tenderness she stole a range of emotional expression from a quality of sound at times barely audible, yet crystalline clear. It would have been so easy, as so many students might, to “project the sound to fill the hall”, to emphasize one’s great passion for the music by displaying the equally great strength of one’s fingers. But Yulianna knows and understands much better than that. The scale of her offering was tiny; the effect was mighty.

Students, please listen and learn.